A few days ago I received an e-mail with the subject "FW: I chose to Forward" that had been forwarded on to me. It was at least on its fourth trip, as there were many "> > > >"s in front of every line.

The e-mail tells the heart-warming story of a young disabled boy who was allowed into a softball game and permitted to get a home-run by the other boys despite the fact that it would not have been possible if there had been at least one boy on the field who was more competitive than generous.

Truly a nice story, but probably a story nonetheless.

At the end of the e-mail, though, came the following…

> >
> > >We all send thousands of jokes through the e-mail without a second
> > thought,
> >
> > >but when it comes to sending messages about life choices, people
> > >think twice about sharing.
> >
> > >The crude, vulgar, and often obscene pass freely through cyberspace,
> > >but public discussion about decency is too often suppressed in our
> > >schools
> > and
> >
> > >workplaces.
> >
> > >If you're thinking about forwarding this message, chances are that
> > >you're probably sorting out the people on your address list that
> > >aren't the "appropriate" ones to receive this type of message.
> >
> > >Well, the person who sent you this believes that we all can make a
> > >difference. We all have thousands of opportunities every single day
> > >to
> > help
> >
> > >realize the "natural order of things."
> >
> > >So many seemingly trivial interactions between two people present us
> > >with
> > a
> > >choice:
> >
> > >Do we pass along a little spark of love and humanity or do we pass up
> > that
> >
> > >opportunity, and leave the world a little bit colder in the
> >
> > >process?
> >
> > >You now have two choices:
> >
> > >1. Delete
> >
> > >2. Forward

This seems like a fair-minded social commentary and an admonition to think more about the crud we send around to other people, quite often on a daily basis, and also often without concern for the sensitivities of recipients. But the whole premise fails on the simple grounds that the above is no different the telling you to forward the e-mail or you'll get warts on your toes or some puppy in Outer Mongolia will starve due to his kitten-alergy.

The e-mail was a chain mail like all the others.

Caveat Sender

One of the things I have noticed about the development of viruses and spam is that they use social engineering more now than previously. Social engineering is a nice term used to descibe a "con". If you are tricked, for example, into giving your password to some one, that's social engineering and it's good social engineering if you never know you were tricked. Quite often, it's a much easier method than attempting to crack into a computer system over a network. See this story on the BBC web site about how some people will happily part with their passwords in return for chocolate.

A more sinister, and monetarily successful, scam that uses social engineering is the e-mail that pretends to come from your bank – and looks convincingly professional, too – asking you to confirm your electronic banking credentials. You follow the link to be presented with a web page that looks just like the one you are familiar with, you enter your details, and you're thanked. The next thing you know, your credit-card is completely maxed out and your savings account emptied.

The e-mail that tells us the lovely story may very well be another social engineering project. Two possible ways this could be used in a sinister manner are:

  1. The original sender may very well expect the e-mail to eventually get back to him/her. Included as part of the e-mail will be a list of e-mail addresses, all verified as valid. This may suffer from a lack of efficiency, I don't know, I am guessing, but it's a good way of getting a list of e-mail addresses for spamming purposes each of which, the spammer can be reasonably certain, will reach some one. For example, the version of the e-mail I received contained 39 e-mail addresses, will a likelihood of a small bit of duplication.
  2. The e-mail could very well be a test to see how better a nice message would get around than one that appeals to a smaller audience (i.e. a message with a crude joke, pornography, a political diatribe, etc.). A recent and scary development in internet technologies is the discovery that JPG images can now contain viruses. An e-mail with a picture of a cuddly kitten and a message telling you to forward it on because it's a lot nicer that the e-mails you typically forward, could very well contain malicious code in it to corrupt your computer or do some other damage.

I am a fan of the internet. I have been using it relatively long – since 1994. I have seen and read a lot about what to do and not to. On top of that, I long ago developed the policy of not forwarding "joke" e-mails to others. Any e-mails I send on are sent on to specific recipients I believe would appreciate the e-mail, and only then after I have made all efforts to confirm its bona fides

The whole thing about internet safety is not that the guardians of the internet should protect us (if they exist!), but that we exercise our own judgements well and protect ourselves. In the same fashion, we are as much responsible for safety on our roads as other road users. In this context, the best way to do that, I find, is to confirm the original author of an e-mail. If you can't, don't forward it on. The recipient may not thank you, to say the least.


P.S. the real annoyance, though, is that I don't like being lectured to by anonymous, self-appointed prigs.

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